The Nile is known to be a “gift” for the countries it is going through. A lot of people gather on its banks, crops grow and it is the main source of water for every use.
But the policies of some of the countries that it goes through make it a “curse”. In particular, when it comes to states in a geographical area which is threatened by water scarcity, power games tend to cause friction. This situation characterizes the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia in eastern Africa, while neighboring states are involved.
The goals of Ethiopia
In 2011, the government of Meles Zenawi announced the construction of a large dam at the Ethiopian-Sudan border. Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) would be built in Benishangul-Gumuz Province, which is supplied by the Nile. The construction contract was ratified at the Italian construction company Salini Costruttori. Its cost is $ 4-5 billion. It would be the seventh largest dam in the world. It was primarily aimed at generating hydroelectricity that would be enough for Ethiopia to supply all its provinces with electricity and to export energy. Secondarily, the water areas that would be created would contribute to the growth of crops. Ethiopia would therefore provide large sums of energy to support its development, while it would be turned into a regional energy hub. Construction works commenced this year.
The project was planned to be constructed relatively late given its size, the geographical area in which it would be built and the relocation of numerous people who were in the region. However, despite the difficulties, both the Hailemariam Desalegn (2012-2018) and Abiy Ahmed Ali (2018-) governments remain firm in implementing the decision for the construction. There were reactions, but they did not discourage the Ethiopian leaderships.
The Egyptian attitude
The announcement of the construction of the GERD took place at a critical moment for Egypt. In April 2011, the North African country was rocked by the “Arab Spring” and the Mubarak regime had collapsed. The political vacuum was temporarily covered by a government coming from the Armed Forces, but instability and insecurity within the country did not allow it to deal with the matter closely. The restoration of order and the preservation of secularism were the main targets of the new government.
The Morsi’s government was intensively involved in this issue. At the beginning of June 2013, on the eve of the overthrow of the Egyptian president, Egyptian politicians made clear that due to the security issues caused by the construction of the dam, Egypt was thinking to support Ethiopian insurgents to sabotage it! Such statements became public and caused reactions from Addis Ababa. The Egyptian government was publicly apologized, but at the same time, Morsi did not rule out any possibility of reaction in case the security of country’s waters was threatened. Eventually, with bilateral actions, the crisis was spilled without any unexpected events.
The new government of Abdel Sisi also dealt with the issue and held a strong stance. Initially, it tried to stop the construction of the dam. If that were not successful, then Egypt would be forced to defend its historical interests. Indeed, there was information about the possible use of bases in Eritrea by the Egyptian Air Force to press the Ethiopian government to stop the construction works. The presence of military aircrafts near the dam would be hung like a barrier over Ethiopia. These moves prompted reactions, but the situation was not reached a point of conflict. However, Cairo seeing that dynamic policies do not have a serious impact and that the construction has not been completed due to economic reasons, is now holding a softer stance.
Another “player” involved in the spiral of geopolitics of waters is Sudan. Given that the Nile passes through the country and offers opportunities for jobs and survival, the construction of the dam on the border with Ethiopia is concerned it. Of course, the government of the newly-overturned Omar al-Bashir did not appear to hold a dynamic stance after 2011. Although it was a close associate of Egypt, Khartoum’s attitude was not arrogant and was in favor of cooperation. It did not worry as much as Egypt. The political upheaval in the African country nowadays has turned the concern towards that issue, but the next leadership will be forced to take a decision for the Sudanese policy concerning the dam and the relationship with Egypt.
But why does such a construction project cause so many reactions and controversies? The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Initially, it is necessary to make a concise description of the geography of the Nile’s course. The Nile may have been connected primarily with Egypt – and not unfairly – but its sources originate from central and eastern Africa. More specifically, the sources in the central part of the “black” continent are located on Lake Victoria in Uganda. From there the river flows to the north, entering South Sudan and reaching Khartoum in Sudan. The part of the river passing through the two Sudanic states is called the White Nile.
The other part from which the largest river in the world flows is the Ethiopian lake named Tana in the east of the country. The Blue Nile, as it is called, flows to Khartoum where it joins the White Nile. From the Sudanese capital, the African river continues its course through Egypt and flows into the Mediterranean Sea. It is a vital waterway for both east Africa and the rest of the world. Hundreds of millions of people live on its banks, while states have income from activities next to it. Consequently, any control or exploitation of its waters makes some countries vulnerable. Egypt is not an exception. It is strongly dependent on the river for its survival.
The problem, therefore, with the GERD lies in the fact that it is constructed at the beginning of the estuary of the river. Due to the nature of the construction of the dam, it is expected that the volume of its water will be reduced by 25%, which, although it seems small, irreparably affects the Egyptian economy and society. Egypt “lives” by the Nile, secures the largest quantities of drinking water from it, millions of Egyptians survive on its banks and its history with the river is interwoven. Still, it does not have a comprehensive and effective internal water management strategy. Therefore, this problem becomes dangerous and fairly it can be considered a security issue for the country. It is no accident that Sisi in 2017 said “no one can touch Egypt’s water”. The water for Africa is a precious good and in the case of the Nile and Egypt this is very obvious.
The Ethiopian government, however, has a modest attitude. It is willing to discuss with Egypt, while it says that it does not intend to hurt the Egyptians. Its goal is to help raise the standard of living of Ethiopians. But the completion of the construction is delaying, which makes it difficult for the Abiy government to achieve the national targets.
Strangely, Sudan keeps a conciliatory and moderate attitude. Regardless of the fall of Bashir, as long as he was in power, he did not cause tension. His attitude is weird because he was not only an ally of Egypt, but also because Sudan is losing arable land. Due to the process of desertification, fertile land is being destroyed and if the flow of Nile’s waters is reduced, the situation will become worse. Therefore, whoever takes over the authority in Khartoum will have to solve this security issue.
It is obvious, therefore, that environmental reasons cause the Egypt-Ethiopian conflict. At the same time, there is a competition of power and influence. In particular, Egypt never hid its desire for sovereignty in Africa. Until recently, it was regarded as one of the most powerful countries of the “black” continent. It also intends to become a regional energy hub. With Sisi in power, the willing of national greatness becomes more perceptible. It is no coincidence that he strengthens its country’s participation in energy regional blocs, while being president of the African Union, he has traveled to many African countries to prepare the environment for Egyptian investors to enter. Already, he is successful. Still, Egypt has the greatest benefits of exploiting the Nile.
At this juncture, the Egyptian leadership feels that it loses influence and will continue to lose. The upgrading of Ethiopia’s position as demonstrated above and the acquisition of a large share of the river’s exploitation affect the interests of Egypt. Ethiopia is turning into a “rival awe” for Cairo and this is something the Egyptian elite cannot accept. Ultimately, geopolitical interests are ubiquitous.
In conclusion, the situation on the Cairo-Khartoum-Addis Ababa axis is characterized by periods of tension and periods of recession and resilience. This is because it has not yet been clarified the frame regarding the exploitation of Nile waters and because power games do not allow it. In addition, the crisis also illustrates the tragic situation in which the environment is. Last but not least, the fact that third countries are also involved, makes the confrontation even more complicated to get solved.
Of course, this does not mean that the problem should not be tackled effectively. There are ways to prevent the crisis from exacerbating. Political will is required as well as multilateral cooperation. There are institutions that offer a negotiating framework and it is good to use them. Also, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union can intervene to create a base for a debate. Anyway, the ultimate goal is not innocent people who survive because of the river to be harmed from geopolitical games. It is up to the governments to work together to ensure a better future for their peoples.
Azza Radwan Sedky, Ahram Online, Egypt’s leadership in Africa, 18 April 2019, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentP/4/330255/Opinion/Egypt%E2%80%99s-leadership-in-Africa.aspx (access: 19 April 2019)
Barfi Barak, The Washington Institute, Breaking the stalemate in the Egypt- Ethiopia Dam dispute, 28 August 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/breaking-the-stalemate-in-the-egypt-ethiopia-dam-dispute (access: 19 April 2019).
Hussein Hassen, Al- Jazeera, Egypt and Ethiopia spar over the Nile, 06 February 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/2/egypt-disputes-ethiopiarenaissancedam.html (access: 2o April 2019).
Baconi Tarek, European Council on Foreign Relations, The end is Nile: international cooperation on Egypt’s water crisis, 25 July 2018, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_end_is_nile_international_cooperation_on_egypts_water_crisis (access: 20 April 2019).